“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see, soon enough.”
I watched as housewives, hoodies, workmen, all of Liverpool flashed past the passenger window of Frank’s Mercedes. We turned down one side street, then another, then another until eventually we arrived outside a grey roller shutter at the bottom of a dead end street. Slowly the gate clicked upwards, rolling itself up into a tight tube of steel. The car, negotiating a tight turn, swept into a small cobbled builders yard. Surrounded by high walls with an iron staircase in the corner, it seemed more of a prison than a place of work.
The car door opened as the shutter rolled back down, trapping me inside the yard. Already out of the car, Frank waited as the goon with the bald head, in a perverted gesture of chivalry, ran round the Mercedes to open my door.
Tall and lean in his late fifties and dressed immaculately in designer clothes designed for men twenty years his junior (skinny jeans, baggy linen shirt), Frank glared as I emerged from the back of his car. He gestured for me to follow him through the red steel door tucked away under the iron fire escape.
I was led inside a disused workshop, the musty metallic smell of damp rags and oil almost making me gag. The fat bald ‘assistant’ pushed me onto an old office swivel chair. Frank placed one foot against a work bench, lit a Marlboro and blew smoke into my eyes. He’d obviously seen to many crappy gangster films.
Making fun of him in my head was the only thing I could do to stop myself shaking. A pause while he stared at me. Eventually Frank said,
“She’s not got long. Sad, she was a great help to me Joyce was. You were always there though, weren’t you? Creeping around in the kitchen?
“Excuse me but why am I here? ”
Frank stubbed his cigarette out. He leaned forward.
“You are here lad because, over the years, I have trusted her with all sorts of information, all sorts of secrets, and ever since the government, the police and the ex-wife have gotten too nosey, I have trusted her with a lot of my money. Now that she’s about to pass over to the other side, I need to know where she’s hid it.”
“Well why don’t you ask her?”
Frank looked over at his fat accomplice. They exchanged looks of exasperation.
“She says to me, ‘ don’t worry Frank, I’m not going nowhere, wait till I get out and you’ll see where it is.’ Now, as you and me both know lad, the old lady ain’t going home, but how can you say that to her?”
He looked straight at me. For a second, and if I didn’t know better, I thought I detected Frank’s eyes welling up. This was my chance.
“Frank, do you want me to have a word with her ?”
“Would you? Just ask her where it’s hidden. And then, if she comes home, you and me, well we can look after her, yeah?”
“Yeah, of course. But there is always the hope that if she does pass, she could tell us from the other side?”
“Well you know I was thinking that too. But just in case yeah? And don’t worry ’bout them two snivelling kids of hers, crawling round looking for money. I’ll sort them out. We are her real family, you and me kid.”
Frank approached, I stood, then we sort of hugged. An awkward, strange embrace that told me he was as upset as I was. We exited the yard and headed back to the hospital. I needed to speak to Auntie Joyce. But how to tell someone they might not be coming home?
Lying in bed on the Sunday night before the first day back at school was one of the worst feelings any fifteen year old boy could have. All the familiar faces from the year before, older, harder, more accusing. And the questions, like – where have you been all summer, you unsociable bastard? Been to see that weird witch in Wales have you?
And then of course there was Big Pete.
Everyone hated and feared Big Pete in equal measure. Even some of the more timid teachers were wary of him. The fact I was singled out to suffer most of his opprobrium came as a relief to his other potential victims. A sort of lightening conductor, I drew the flashes of temper away from the bespectacled, the geeky and the weak.
I didn’t have long to wait. First break he was there, seeking me out near the H Blocks near the canteen. Big Pete wasn’t particularly tall, more big and stocky – huge legs, a barrel chest, a shock of almost alabaster blond hair and a sneery, scowly face.
And everywhere Big Pete went, his little gang of cronies went with him. Smaller lads from the bottom classes, they laughed at his jokes,squabbled amongst themselves for his favour and did all his dirty work.
The first thing I felt was a shove in the back setting me off balance. As I fell forward I felt my bag sent flying by a kick. Turning round, I saw Big Pete and his gang. Forced to watch as one of Pete’s acolytes unzipped my school bag and emptied the contents onto the floor, my school books, pens, and games kit now scattered across the asphalt. I tried to retrieve my stuff but big Pete’s size ten boots blocked my way. Cornered, I had two choices, either take it or fight back.
“So where you been all summer? Not very sociable are you? Not coming onto the fields to see your mates? ”
“He goes to see that mad woman in Wales.”
“Yeah, isn’t she a witch? Doesn’t she talk to dead people or something?”
“Is that why you got no mates? Cos you like old women? Pervert!”
The first shove was a little too close to my jacket pocket. There was no more time. I had to do something, and quick. Procrastination meant another year of misery.
“Funnily enough Pete, that’s exactly what she is, she’s a Witch, and she’s….she’s-”
Pete got even closer, intrigued that I may actually answer back.
“She’s what? Go on, tell us what she’s gonna do?”
Another shove. I had only one shot at this, so I had to make it good, I had to make it dramatic. I grabbed the phial out of my jacket and held it over my head
“This is a spell, a spell made just for you, and -”
I saw Pete nod to one if his men to grab whatever was in my hand. No more time. Snapping off the end, I shouted-
Pigs do as pigs think
Bully no more.
I let him have it. Sure enough, the glass flew through the air and smashed against Pete’s jacket. Immediately, the most horrendous smell surrounded him. A dense cloying aroma, like a smog, a chemical choking pong that made everyone gag. Pete’s crew turned away, holding their noses. Like a pepper spray, it disabled Pete. Desperate to punch my lights out, Pete was overcome with the stink that clung to him like napalm. A gaggle of girls approached. One cried out, “Fucking hell, who stinks?!”
Everyone pointed to Pete. The introduction of girls completed Pete’s humiliation. Everyone ran off. His coterie of hangers on dissipating like rats on a sinking ship. Pete cloyed at his uniform, desperate for the smell to go. But if anything it got worse. The bell sounded and Mr Roberts appeared. His nostrils flaring, he demanded to know what the smell was. Of course immediately nobody knew anything
“Is that you Peter Phillips? Go and get cleaned up at once! You bloody stink? What the hell is it?”
Girls laughed,boys smirked. Hugh, a tiny boy with red hair and glasses who everyone assumed was nuts, was the first to confirm the rumour.
“Mr Roberts sir, he’s been cursed, a witch from Wales has cursed him for being a bully.
“Well good, because you are a bully Phillips, it’s about time someone cursed you, now listen everyone, the bell’s gone. Jesus what a stink.”
The playground cleared. Then something really strange happened. I didn’t witness it, but when it happened, it flew round school like wild fire.
On his way down the steps to the boy’s cloakroom to try and clean up, Pete slipped, fell awkwardly, landed on his elbow and broke his collar bone. Carl, his trusted lieutenant and the only one to remain loyal said, “Fuck me Pete, what if you really have been cursed ?”
The episode with Pete was the talk of the school. Everyone had an opinion, a theory. And of course, as rumour begat rumour, it gained renewed drama with each re-telling. Pete, now with his arm in a sling, cut a lonely figure. His gang had deserted him. Girls held their noses round him. He was a broken man. Now, Carl his last loyal acolyte approached me. He wanted to broker a deal.
“Listen, Pete wants you to take this curse off him. He can’t cope with it, it’s really stressing him out, ”
“Well he should of thought of that before he went round bullying everyone, shouldn’t he?”
“What can he do? He promises he won’t give you a hard time again.”
“Tell him I’ll think about it.”
“Here, will this help?”
Held in Carl’s hand was a tight wad of notes. I looked, then looked again. “How much is there?”
“Forty five quid.”
“Forty five quid ? Fuck-”
I stopped myself just in time . Coolly, I eased the money from Carl’s grip.
“Tell him to meet me outside the bike sheds after school.”
The ceremony to lift the curse was brief, solemn and not a little nervy. Joyce never bothered telling me how to lift a curse, so I had to wing it slightly. I got an old rag and some water and did a little ceremony. I drew a symbol on his cast, touched his forehead and mumbled some Gaelic Joyce taught me last the summer.
That evening I spent a sleepless night fretting that I hadn’t lifted the curse at all and that I had condemned Pete to a life of ill fortune. I consoled myself with the money and in the morning I went into town to buy myself the smartest leather jacket in the shop.
Years later, I heard that Pete had fallen into bad company and spent most of his adult life either on the streets or in prison.